The Obama administration is locked in a fierce debate that challenges a central premise of President Obama’s foreign policy: The fight in Afghanistan is a “war of necessity” aimed at rooting out Al Qaeda and other extremists and ensuring they never find safe haven on Afghan soil again.
Mr. Obama reiterated this position in March when he backed a counterinsurgency strategy – aimed at winning over the Afghans by protecting the local population and providing services – and approved the deployment of 21,000 additional troops.
The remaining question then really about resourcing that strategy in terms of both money and troops. In his assessment submitted last month, the top US commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal concluded that success is “still achievable” but “failure” was likely without sufficient additional troops. He is thought to have asked the president for 40,000 more troops.
But the White House review has since turned into a debate because it comes at a difficult moment for US involvement in Afghanistan. American public support for the war is waning, and a flawed Afghan presidential election in August has revealed the degree to which corruption permeates the country's political leadership.
Growing American doubts are beginning to register in foreign capitals. Alluding to the White House debate, British foreign secretary David Miliband said Thursday that NATO needed to stick to its strategy to prevent Afghanistan from becoming “a place for Al Qaeda to seduce, groom, train, and plan for … the next 9/11.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is likely to emerge the winner in a review of the alleged frauds in the Aug. 20 election. But doubts about him and his government as a reliable partner in a counterinsurgency strategy are feeding proposals for alternative approaches. One idea would be to use few or no additional US troops, and focus instead on accelerating training of Afghan soldiers and police.
However, achieving Obama's goals in Afghanistan is not possible without additional resources, security analysts say.
"The most dubious argument out there is that you can somehow reduce the risks the situation in Afghanistan presents by also reducing the costs," says James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va. There's no basis for the idea that you can achieve the same objectives at lower costs, he says.
But others have suggested that Afghanistan won't become an Al Qaeda haven even if a resurgent Taliban were to reestablish control over large sections of the country. And even if it did, some analysts say the US can't afford to "right" all states where such havens might arise – especially since terrorists targeting the US don't necessarily require a safe base from which to operate.
The current debate over Afghanistan inflates the threat that a potentially reestablished safe haven would pose to US security, said Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA's counterterrorist center, in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post. The issue is not whether such a haven would be useful to terrorists, he wrote.
"Instead, the issue is whether preventing such a haven would reduce the terrorist threat to the US enough … to offset the required expenditure of blood and treasure and the barriers to success in Afghanistan, including an ineffective regime and sagging support from the population," he wrote.
That argument reflects a legitimate weighing of the "risks and costs" of the Afghanistan war, says Mr. Dobbins, who was a special adviser on Afghanistan to both the Bush and Clinton administrations.
But should Obama stick to his counterinsurgency strategy, he adds, he will have little choice but to increase both troops and funding. "We've learned in the last few years in Iraq what we should have learned a number of times in the past," Dobbins says.
One lesson is simply "what the necessary elements of a counterinsurgency strategy are, but it's also the need to adequately resource such a strategy."
Follow us on Twitter.